Karthik Subramanian, a digital immigrant, reflects on 15 years of Google Search and its impact
For digital immigrants like me there are bound to be enlightening stories about the very first time we ever used an Internet Search Engine. (I have nothing against digital natives or millennials but I am not sure if they can comprehend the world that existed before Google.)
I remember the bicycle ride I took with my friend, whose name I won't mention here because I would not want to embarrass a top insurance company executive. This was immediately after we had passed out of school and entered college, so the year must have been 1995 or 1996. We cycled from Anna Nagar, then a wonderfully quiet Chennai neighbourhood, to Kodambakkam, the hub of Kollywood, where there was this Internet kiosk. Our sole objective was to search for images of then supermodel and now activist-for-some-cause-I-don’t-know Cindy Crawford.
The search engine we used to find the websites that had the photographs was Altavista, which was later acquired by Yahoo! Unlike other first-generation web search engines, Altavista had a reputation for not filtering its results.
Google was actually a late entrant into the world of search engines. It was launched only in 1998 and became universal a few years later.
My second personal anecdote involving a web search engine, this time specifically involving 'Google', happened in 2005, when I was a part of a classroom in Berlin. We were taken on a field visit to the Google Office in Hamburg. I remember this for many reasons: the office there was already offering the now iconic Google Free Lunch for its employees, they had a lounge inside their office with indoor games and it was the coolest office I had seen until then or, for that matter, until now.
Both the anecdotes have something to do with what I feel about the 15th year of Google Search, which was recently celebrated by millions of users, especially by playing that arcade game the celebratory Google Doodle offered.
It is easy to get hyperbolic about Google Search and how “Googling” has transformed our lives. Here are some statistics that are guaranteed to drop jaws: Google serves up close to 114 billion searches to 1.1 billion users every month; the digital advertising revenue it raises is to the tune of $38.6 billion; and it accounts for more traffic than any other website. (These numbers I don't want to discuss because they are usually debated by different research firms.)
But what's important here is to have a perspective on where Google has led us. Whether it has really simplified our lives to a large extent? Whether it has helped make information from around the world so easily and readily available?
The answers to both those questions are surely ‘yes’ but I can’t help getting a bit sceptical too. While Googling can turn a mother into an effective guide for her kid who is working out a school assignment, as that advertisement for Google Search App shows, there are also a few other things one needs to be aware of. (If you don't know the ad I am referring to, just Google "Google Search App Ad". It’s the first YouTube link)
There are Internet activists such as the left wing's Eli Pariser (Google his TED talk and his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You) who talk about how the 'personalised Web' that Google is creating for all its users, is narrowing down one's world view instead of broadening it. The Upworthy project by Pariser's team of dedicated curators is attempting to bring to public attention things that Google Search might not necessarily index or page rank higher.
Reputed economists such as Robert Reich in his New York Times Op-ed ‘American Bile’ talks about Internet users often finding and narrowing themselves to a core group of similar minded people online, and in some ways this leading to a detrimental situation of hatred and anger.
In many ways, what Pariser and Reich talk about is a world where people are influenced by ‘Google Search’ and other algorithm-based services, without awareness of what is happening.
Which takes me back to Google's office in Germany. Their spokesperson said something back then in 2005 about the company's motto, which is being closely scrutinised, especially over the last few months. “Do not be evil,” he said poker-faced, evoking laughter.
Google has been fighting privacy law suits across the country, and is concerned today more than ever before given the backdrop of the Edward Snowden expose. More recently the Web has been abuzz with talk of how Google knows every Wi-Fi password that any Android device the world over has accessed. (Google this and you will know from a series of reliable technology blogs how the search giant has more information that is likely to make people nervous.)
I would like to go back to where I started. Even while we celebrate Google Search's 15th birthday along with the rest of the world, let us also hope that we can go back to an era where it was possible to find out things that we want to online, rather than get served with what the personalised Web wants us to see.